EAST LANSING, Mich. — Jaren Jackson Jr. doesn’t expect a No. 1 ranking to change Michigan State’s basketball team.
The Spartans (14-1, 2-0 Big Ten) plan to go about their business the same way as before. Second-ranked to top-ranked doesn’t greatly affect their reputation. Everyone already knew about them and their talent. They’re the heavy Big Ten favorites for a reason.
“We’ve had a target [on our backs] all the time,” Jackson, a freshman forward, said Sunday. “It’s just gonna be the No. 1 target. That’s gonna be fun, though. It’s gonna be fun to have. Everybody’s gonna give us their best shot, and we’re gonna take it.”
But if Michigan State has had a target on it, its opponents have been monumentally poor shots. In their last four games, the Spartans have won by 45, 42, 50 and 56 points. The last of the four — a 108-52 win over Savannah State on Sunday — finished with the Spartans scoring the game’s final 32 points.
While beating up on overmatched teams, Michigan State was waiting for the nation’s final undefeated teams to lose so it could rise. And on Saturday, both No. 1 Villanova and No. 3 Arizona State fell, opening the door. Coach Tom Izzo welcomed the jump to the top.
“Anytime that we can be No. 1 is great because it still speaks more about the program,” he said. “The program can handle that, these players. Each group is different, but they came here because this program has been ranked No. 1 before. We’ve played in those big games before.”
But what constitutes a big game this season? Now Michigan State resumes Big Ten play in what looks like one of the conference’s weakest years in recent memory. At No. 13, Purdue (whom the Spartans only face at home) is the only other ranked Big Ten team. No one else even got votes this week.
Michigan State’s next five games include four at home against a Maryland team decimated by injuries, a Rutgers group that lost to Stony Brook and Hartford in consecutive games, a Michigan team that has looked solid, and an Indiana squad that has fallen to in-state foes Indiana State and Fort Wayne. Star wing Miles Bridges expects more of a challenge than nonconference play indicated.
“Some of the teams, they’re good,” he said. “I just feel like they didn’t stay focused at Christmas break, and that’s what hurt a lot of teams. But we’re gonna try to stay focused, and at the end of the day the Big Ten is tough to play in, especially away games. We can’t take our foot off the pedal.”
The 2015-16 Spartans team knows all about that, entering Big Ten play ranked No. 1. Then came an 83-70 loss at Iowa in the opener and a 3-4 start to the conference slate.
Only once in the last eight seasons has the Big Ten champion finished more than two games ahead of the field, and it’s been six years since that champion was Michigan State. The odds are in the Spartans’ favor, but until they run away with the league, no one should assume they will.
“I’m definitely ready for conference play,” point guard Cassius Winston said. “It calls for more focus. We’ve got to lock in, have better mindsets going into games like that. This point in the season was fun. We scored a lot of points and things like that, but now it’s time to get back to the real world. We’re going to grind some games out, and everything’s not going to be easy.”
Nor do they want it to be. These last few games have essentially been chalked up as wins before they’ve started. They have given the visiting teams a good chunk of change to get beaten up by a Michigan State team intent of rewriting the program record books. But that can get old quickly.
“I don’t want anymore of these games,” Jackson said. “I’m ready to move on to Big Ten play. I’m very excited about it, especially with the game coming up against Maryland. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be very competitive, and that’s what we all want: competition.”